Clara Schumann isn’t the only woman who made a big mark on classical music in the 19th century. The norms of the day discouraged “respectable women” from being professional musicians, and societal discomfort with female composers and performers often meant that fame faded quickly after their death or retirement, but here is a sample of women from the era whose talent and drive pushed past the boundaries set in their way.
grew up surrounded by creative expression. Her father was a sculptor and she was raised in an artist’s colony associated with the Sorbonne. From an early age, she learned music from some of the top talents of the day, including composition lessons with Ignaz
Hummel. She was barred from enrolling at the Paris Conservatory due to her gender but Anton
, who was a professor there, took her on as a private student and put her through conservatory-level paces when she was just 15.
ability as a pianist made her a sought-after recitalist in the 1830s, and after about a decade in the concert halls, the same conservatory that hadn’t allowed her to enroll offered her a job as a professor.
quickly became one of the highest regarded professors at the Paris Conservatory, regularly turning out students who graduated at the top of their class. That regard didn’t translate to a salary equal to the male professors…until she wrote a piece of chamber music for nine instruments that, quite frankly, knocked everyone’s socks off. With that in hand, she marched into her administrator’s office, demanded equal pay and got it.
and her husband, a flutist, also founded Editions
, one of France’s leading music publishers.
Fay grew up in a parsonage in
Goula, Louisiana, as one of nine children. She was especially close to an older sister, Zina, who recognized Fay’s talent and worked to connect Fay with people who could secure her a chance to meet one of the nation’s most prominent musicians of the day,
John Knowles Paine. Paine quickly recognized her talent and invited her to study with him at Harvard and New England Conservatory. At the time, though, an America’s best conservatories did yet not offer a musical education equal of that available in Europe, and eventually she was sent across the Atlantic to finish honing her skills in Germany as a pupil of Franz Liszt for six years.
Her letters home from Germany captured incredible detail about the robust musical community. She wrote about her fellow musicians and their living conditions, and musical culture. Her letters were published in a book that is still considered one of the most important primary sources for understanding the ins and outs of the musical community of the era, particularly
in regard to
Liszt, and she eventually wrote articles for American magazines about her time there
(here’s an example).
Once back in the United States, she quickly secured the chance to perform with the nation’s leading conductor, Theodore Thomas, in Boston and New York. She then
spearheaded the creation of amateur music societies around the nation, wanting to raise the level of music-making in the US to something closer to what she had experienced in Europe. With music education in mind, she toured using a format she developed that she called Piano Conversations, where she would speak from the bench about the music she was playing. Fay was an innovator in piano technique, as well, and wrote new method books that quickly became sought-after resources for piano teachers.
A list of Ingeborg
friends reads like a Romantic era classical who’s who: Rossini, Berlioz and Wagner were all buddies of the Swedish pianist. But she held her own, even in that crowd. Like others on this list, she studied piano with Franz Liszt, and her first career was on the concert circuit. When her husband, also a pianist, took a job managing Hanover’s Royal Theatre in 1867, von
was expected to stop working and focus her attention on their home. She did stop performing and touring, but if anything, she became even more musically active. Building on her previous success composing a piano concerto, von
wrote songs and chamber music first, then operas which were produced across Germany. Her Kaiser Wilhelm March and opera
were especially popular in her day.
The woman who performed as
born just a few years after the end of the Civil War to a man who had been enslaved. During her childhood, Jones’ father was a minister
A.M.E Church in
to a Baptist congregation in
Rhode Island. Jones grew up singing in the church
and, in the late 1880s, was accepted into the New England Conservatory of Music. Early in her professional career, Jones toured the West Indies with Nashville’s Fisk Jubilee Singers
. It was that series of concerts along with several others in the Caribbean that caught the attention of the press, who
her the “Black Patti,” comparing her voice and power to one of the biggest operatic stars of the day, Adelina Patti
was the first
to sing at what is now called Carnegie Hall. She performed at the White House for four consecutive American presidents: Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt
(TR’s was the first administration to allow her to enter through the front door). In 1892, Jones performed before an audience of 75,000 at Madison Square Garden
. By 1895 she was recognized to be the most famous and highly paid black American
of the day.
Racial barriers continued to plague her, though, and in the mid-1890s she chose to
blaze a different path. She formed
a group of
musicians and acrobats
called the Black Patti
and went on the road with a stage show that was
part vaudeville, part circus, with a little bit of opera thrown in.
Jones retired from performing in 1915. She died in 1933, too poor to afford a headstone. Her grave was finally marked in 2018, the same year
New York Times finally ran a belated obituary for her.